Hours before she was assassinated, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto held bilateral talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Terrorism and regional stability dominated the agenda (IHT). “I found in her this morning a lot of love and desire for peace in Afghanistan,” Karzai said after Bhutto’s death. But these were more than kind words: Karzai appeared to be counting on a partnership with a Bhutto-led Pakistani government to curb cross-border incursions feeding instability in Afghanistan. Now, experts say, fallout from her death has left Afghanistan in the lurch.
That Karzai and Bhutto met to discuss improving relations was not remarkable. The talks came on the heels of meetings between Karzai and Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf, at which the two leaders sought to mend fences (AP) over past border disputes. Yet Karzai’s talks with Bhutto were seen as the best hope for lasting cooperation between the neighbors, says Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ayaz Khan. Bhutto had grown increasingly critical of Musharraf’s handling of militants along the Afghan-Pakistan border, a concern shared by Karzai. Afghan officials reportedly hoped for a Bhutto victory in Pakistani parliamentary elections originally scheduled for January 8—her party was leading before her death—as a way to strengthen the fight against extremism (AFP).
With prospects for a Karzai-Bhutto alliance ended, some regional observers are predicting a decline in relations. A senior Afghan government official described Bhutto as “one of the few credible Pakistan alternatives” (AFP). The Washington Post quotes experts as saying the biggest concern is that Musharraf will become preoccupied with domestic affairs and unable to crack down on militants holed-up in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas. In recent months, these militants have launched attacks in both countries. CFR President Richard N. Haass says the political landscape minus Bhutto is likely to be volatile. “That is bad for the struggle against terrorism; it is bad for Afghanistan.”
Just how the dust might settle remains unclear. Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies writes that much depends on who is identified as responsible for Bhutto’s killing. If an Islamist extremist group steps forward it could “direct anger toward the forces doing most to drive Pakistan apart and threaten Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan’s courting of Bhutto is not without irony. The Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan with support from Pakistan’s intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), during Bhutto’s terms as prime minister in the 1980s and 90s. “I became slowly, slowly sucked into” supporting the Taliban, Bhutto was quoted as telling Steve Coll, whose book, Ghost Wars, details the evolution of the Taliban and al-Qaeda before 9/11. Author and historian William Dalrymple, writing in the New York Times, notes that Bhutto “was apparently the victim of Islamist militant groups that she allowed to flourish.” Two decades after Bhutto’s first term in office, however, Afghanistan appeared ready to look beyond (AFP) her prior stance toward the Taliban.
With Bhutto gone, all eyes now turn to Musharraf, whose response could have an enormous impact on Pakistan’s neighbor. The Pakistani president has blamed al-Qaeda for the assassination, though opposition supporters, including Bhutto’s husband, scoff at the idea (Economist). J. Alexander Thier, a former UN official in Afghanistan, tells the Washington Post in the article cited above that Musharraf could stir violence in Afghanistan if he clamps down too hard on militants. Others warn instability in Pakistan could easily spill across the border (Salon), spelling trouble for NATO and U.S. troops based in Afghanistan. It’s a concern at least one key NATO ally, Canada, has already predicted (National Post).